Research team aims to predict response of storm-hit beaches

2 min read

Plymouth University scientists believe they can improve beach management by investigating how the Cornish coastline responds to powerful storms.

Led by Plymouth University, the team is using cameras, laser scanners and acoustic devices to formulate the clearest picture yet of how gravel is moved up and down beaches.

Prof Gerd Masselink, from Plymouth University’s School of Marine Science and Engineering, is leading the research effort. He said: ‘Gravel beaches extend along more than 1,000km of the coastline of England and Wales and represent sustainable coastal defences that can protect low-lying regions from flooding. However, limited scientific guidance is currently available to provide beach managers with operational management tools to predict the response of these beaches to storm conditions.

‘The aim of this project is to develop such a predictive capability through an integrated research approach, involving novel field experimentation, comprehensive beach monitoring and innovative computer modelling.’

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and in partnership with academics from the US and Australia, the Environment Agency, Channel Coastal Observatory and HR Wallingford, the project is running throughout March at Loe Bar, near Porthleven.

According to a statement, the gravel beach at the site shelves steeply into the sea, resulting in large waves that break directly against the shore. This ensures that it provides some of the best surfing conditions in the UK, but also some of the most severe coastal erosion.

Prof Paul Russell, also from Plymouth University, said: ‘This comprehensive field experiment will provide new fundamental knowledge on wave motion and gravel transport on beaches. This information will help develop computer models of sediment transport, coastal flooding and erosion, and will improve predictions of how gravel beaches respond to climate change.’

The team is using a large number of instruments to record water levels, flow speeds, rates of gravel movement and beach change, and from the data will be able to quantify wave motion, gravel sediment transport and beach response under extreme breaking waves.

The instruments are deployed from a 60m-long scaffold structure inserted at the high tide level and data is collected using a bank of laptop computers housed in a mobile field laboratory installed at the top of the beach.

During stormy conditions, the team will make use of remote sensing instruments above the water line, such as acoustic devices, laser scanners and cameras.

The University of Delaware is using a thermal camera to record wave motion on the beach. Delaware’s Dr Jack Puleo said: ‘Conditions on Loe Bar are ideal for this research. The large tidal range will allow the installation of the scaffold rig and instruments with relative ease, and the timing of the experiment at the end of the winter makes it likely that we will at least encounter one major storm event.

‘We should experience some energetic wave conditions with 3–5m-high breaking waves on the beach and such waves should cause significant beach change.’